Anyone who thinks Tel Aviv artists and club kids have no souls ought to check out a current exhibition that reveals the light usually hidden in their world. Guards of Israel is the first official exhibit in the shiny new Raw Art gallery in South Tel Aviv, and the first show for artist Ido Shemi (also known as the proprietor of the now-defunct Dinamo Dvash Club) in a commercial space in years.
The experience begins when visitors approach the gallery. Just off Rehov Shocken, not far from the main drag, there's a series of buildings that might have been transported from some Soviet-bloc country behind the Iron Curtain. But this is Tel Aviv, and the sound of live rock and the sight of quirkily dressed artists announce this neighborhood's identity as the latest Bohemian enclave for local artists and musicians. Sharon Glazberg, an artist who rents a studio here, says "it feels like Melrose Place," since so many of her peers make art or practice with their bands in this rugged cluster of buildings.
Despite the popular appeal inherent in that association, visitors venturing down the outdoor hallway and entering the Raw Art showroom on the fourth floor soon realize there's serious, oddly spiritual work afoot here. Raw's interior space is polished and professional - from the precise lights and freshly painted white walls down to the sleek slate floor. But some of the work by artist Ido Shemi is more amateurish - in the best sense - and emotional than cool. His Guards of Israel exhibit feels real, straight from the street and the heart; viewers experience the message minus the artworldly pretense.
Straight ahead from the entrance, a flimsy looking red box hovers above a tripod, luring viewers with two binocular-like eyeholes and the soothing sound of snoring. Inside, a primitive animated drawing presents an abandoned synagogue with Rastafarian-style red, yellow and green stained-glass windows and a prominent "For Rent" sign. On the sidewalk, several uniformed members of Shemi's mythic "spy club" are passed out on chairs, snoring among graffiti, trash and the Israeli flag. The message and the theme of the show is clear: the "keepers" of Israel are slacking off, their holy purpose abandoned. And so their "space" is available.
Yet it's not a didactic statement. Shemi pulls the iconography from his own world: his neighborhood in nearby Florentine, the game he loves (soccer), and other pop culture infatuations. While these artworks do function as a gentle criticism of Israeli society, they also serve as a warm invitation to an alternative version of reality, and a reminder of the human ability to create something beyond what is.
In fact, at the exhibition opening, standing near this and sculptures such as the menacing "Captain Greedy" and "Golem Becomes Boss," Shemi said: "This is the dark side, the problems of our world. But over there (gesturing across the gallery), there's hope."
One of these "lighter" works is a looming papier mache figure folded over a guitar. It's clearly labeled, in handwritten Hebrew: "Elvis lives/in Florentine." On the surface, this is an exceedingly silly, even juvenile project, but there's also an uplifting sense of "why not?"
Even the "cleaner," more refined and commercial mosaic pieces communicate Shemi's message through his distinctive, accessible and oddly eloquent language, fusing pop culture with Judaism-lite, and even an occasional reference to the History of Art. While the sculptures demonstrate a rough, spontaneous handling of the material, the mosaics reflect Shemi's ability to work with the painstaking precision, tightly controlled compositions and "long-term" vision necessary for this medium. He has an impressive ability to articulate details such as knuckles or the delicate curve of a calf using only angular tile shards. Beyond the craftsmanship, it's also exciting to see an artist who successfully communicates an archetypical yet profound narrative without it being clich : confusion, despair, prayer, epiphany and victory, through an archaic medium that most contemporary artists are too disinterested - or lazy - to touch.
Traditionally, most "serious" contemporary artists in Israel and abroad adamantly shun the designation "Jewish artist," fearing that any association with Jewish ideas or practice would make their work and career less viable. However, in recent years, hipsters and artists such as Shemi are beginning to reclaim Jewish culture, and even the Bible, as source material that can be woven into a compelling statement about their own lives and the predicaments of our times.
While Ido Shemi's Judaism is a bit unorthodox, his art reflects a mature Jewish self-consciousness, perhaps encouraging viewers to contemplate how they too might elevate everyday reality, and strive for - or at least imagine - a better world.
This Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in the Raw Art showroom, there will be a panel discussion featuring Shemi, Yuval Caspi, Eli Eshed and others interested in the figure of the golem in literature, cinema, comics and Israeli art. Works on the agenda include Shemi's sculptures, "The Golem" by Uri Fink and Eli Eshed, Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and Sara Blau's book about a woman "who can't find a man who can satisfy her, so she creates a golem," to quote Caspi.
The Raw Art showroom, Rehov Shibetz Hamertz 3 (entrance 8, floor 4), Tel Aviv. Entrance is free; open Monday through Thursday and Saturday from 4 to 10 p.m. Telephone: (03) 683-2559.